washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Ombudsman

The Essential Newspaper

By Michael Getler
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page B06

Anyone interested in newspapers is probably aware that this is a tough time for a medium that has been a central feature of American history and democracy since the founding of our republic.

Newspapers have thrived since those first few dozen were established in the colonies. Their successors have withstood the challenges of radio and television. But things are more complex now. The challenges are not just technological; they are personal and societal. As Walt Kelly's famous comic-strip character Pogo once said: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Two Post stories last week captured the situation. "The venerable newspaper is in trouble," wrote reporter Frank Ahrens on the front of the Business section last Sunday. "Under sustained assault from cable television, the Internet, all-news radio and lifestyles so cram-packed they leave little time for the daily paper, the industry is struggling to remake itself. . . . The changes come as circulation totals have eroded steadily for nearly two decades and as newspapers no longer play the central role in daily life they once did."

The next day, on the front of the Style section, media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote: "Already hemorrhaging readers and viewers and losing public trust, the mainstream media are being battered hourly by the surging denizens of the blogosphere, accused of raw partisanship, rank incompetence and conspiratorial cover-ups.

"Newspapers, networks and magazines aren't likely to vanish anytime soon (and if they did, what would the bloggers talk about?)," Kurtz wrote, "but their credibility is under assault as never before, and a series of self-inflicted wounds haven't helped."

The ombudsman's perch is an interesting spot from which to watch all this angst unfold. The attacks on the mainstream media, and the attempts to undermine them, are indeed escalating. More and more e-mails have a nasty, threatening, ideological tone. The number of people who claim they are canceling their subscriptions because they don't like the coverage of this or that is increasing.

So I, too, worry about the future of newspapers. They are central to an informed citizenry, and their special role cannot be filled by competing media.

I worry about the self-inflicted wounds that diminish the trust that should exist between newspapers (and television news networks) and the public, and about the increasing numbers who are not reading newspapers at all.

Some of this is because newspapers are bulky things that a lot of people don't have time for and because, increasingly, people glance at them online. But this decline probably also says a lot about newspapers not being sufficiently compelling in the day-to-day lives of readers. It may signal a growing public disengagement from more in-depth news, or perhaps that more and more people prefer not to be confronted with reporting or commentary that challenges their views.

The printed Post's slide in circulation has been more than offset by the vast reach of its first-rate Web site, www.washingtonpost.com, which has exposed Post journalism to large numbers of readers nationally who might otherwise not see it. Yet the decline in circulation of the printed paper seems especially troubling when the region itself is both expanding and booming, and when the news could hardly be more important.

My guess is that the circulation decline will level off at what will amount to The Post's truly hard-core readership plus some newcomers. These are my kind of people. I'm one who has always been grateful to newspapers. I think they give people an edge, an advantage, no matter what it is people do. To me, the printed paper remains more naturally compatible with our history and habits, with reading and discussion, and with a sense of community and of discovery that often comes just by turning the page.

The blogosphere is a wonderful thing, also in keeping with who we are. But it doesn't seem so new to me because it does what readers have always done: read, write, analyze, complain, correct. It has always been true that if you make a mistake on even the most arcane matter in a newspaper, someone out there will catch it and let you know. The Web and the explosion of personal blogs, or Web logs and journals, have tapped into and greatly expanded that public reservoir of knowledge and understanding in important ways by challenging the accuracy of reporting and adding analysis.

On the other hand, nothing out there is going to supply you with the extraordinary daily content of The Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal or other fine newspapers.

Bloggers were the first to uncover some things recently, but that doesn't mean that traditional news organizations would not have come to those facts as well. The difference between newspapers and some of today's instant-delivery alternatives is that newspapers make use of time -- time for trained and experienced journalists to report, time for editors to get between reporters and the public, time to think a little longer about things.

The challenges that editors and publishers face today are tough, and smart people here and elsewhere are seeking to set the right course. Papers need to be easier to navigate and stories need to be told more concisely. But I don't think today's challenges will be met by new layouts or other superficial changes.

My vote goes for more hard news, especially on Page One, more of the context that newspapers can so well provide, more probing of government and institutions at all levels, and more journalism that is unflinching yet beyond reproach -- in other words, trustworthy.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company